It’s Leo’s birthday tomorrow and he’s predictably very excited. We are giving him lots of Pokémon cards as requested and the whole week is pretty much a festival of Leo: cupcakes at school, birthday dinner of fish and chips with his best friend and a party on the weekend with his friends.
As I was getting Clem to sleep tonight Leo was lying in bed and having trouble settling down for sleep. He asked me to sing him ‘Rock-a-bye Big Boy’ which has become a favourite lullaby since Clem was born.
Rock-a-bye Big Boy
In the big bed.
When the wind blows, the big bed will rock.
When the bough breaks, the big bed will fall
and down will come Big Boy, big bed and all.
I didn’t even get to finish the song before both Big Boy and Little Boy in my arms were snoozing.
He can read and write and run and ride a bike (with training wheels) and swim and he still loves a lullaby before bed. Bless his heart.
I’m going to write him a letter tonight – the first birthday letter he’ll be able to read – and tell him how much I love him and how proud I am of the person he is. As the man from the $2 shop where we buy Pokémon cards says: ‘Two boys. Lucky Mum.’
What an amazing month that was! We had never done anything like that before (writing and illustrating a book, publishing 21 blog posts in one month or creating and marketing a crowdfunding campaign) so we had no idea what it would be like. It was fun, emotionally exhausting, hard work and an amazing learning experience. And as Jeff is fond of reminding me IT’S NOT OVER YET! We still have rewards to create, a launch to plan and lots of other things to do.
Thank you so much to all the backers, and those who shared the project far and wide. The online copy of the book had over 4,000 page views which is amazing. The money raised by our Kickstarter project is enabling us to get 750 copies of the board book printed, along with producing the other rewards.
For those who didn’t pre-order a book and would like to buy one, please sign up for our newsletter (link below) and we’ll let you know when they’re ready to buy.
I was meaning to publish a thank you post on the blog earlier this week but I kept on falling asleep with the kids – knackered after pushing through August. And then I saw the pictures of Aylan Kurdi and I felt dumbstruck and deeply sad.
Feeling helpless, and somewhat hopeless, about the larger state of the world and at the same time hopeful for my own children makes me think about the big questions. What are we all doing here? How can I best use all the great good luck I’ve been given? What is my purpose in life?
I have wondered about this at different junctures in my life. When I was in primary school I wanted to save the world and be Prime Minister. At uni I thought my purpose was to create something of lasting value as an artist. And right now I think it’s to do my best to be kind. Kind to myself and others and the world. Years ago I would have thought that credo was lightweight or unambitious but the older I get the more it feels revolutionary. It’s one of those things that is elegantly simple, but if you look closely it’s actually really complex.
So we are getting doing our tax returns, writing mega lists of all the things left to do, taking the boys to swimming lessons, cooking, tidying, wiping up bits of boiled egg from the floor, donating money to refugee charities, going to work and coming home, writing blog posts… the stuff of a life we are very grateful for.
There are moments that are perfect. Where I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing. They don’t come that often for me, but when they do they are magical.
Some of the things that get me in that zone are:
Making art or craft
Walking and listening to music
Playing with children.
(Disclaimer: most of the time when I’m playing with my kids I am not ‘in flow’ – I am thinking of chores that need doing, or writing a shopping list in my head, or tidying up, or cooking (or lately, composing a blog post). Not giving anything my full attention. But the times when I do manage to just enjoy whatever it is we’re doing are pure joy).
Having a baby or a young kid makes it harder to steal moments for all of the above (except for playing with them), and yet spending time with them is a perfect opportunity to surrender and just enjoy some simple pleasures. Clem will happily sit and play with wood-chips or dirt or a patch of grass for 30 minutes.
The best way for me to be more present with my boys (and enjoy myself too), is to be outside. At the park, in the garden or sitting out the front of our house, I’m not looking sideways at the mess I want to tidy, or the dinner that’s half done, or the chair that needs mending.
When I’m enjoying that perfect moment: a conversation with Leo or a bath with Clem or our whole family laughing or enjoying music together, I wonder why life can’t always be like this. And then Leo or Clem will ask for a drink of water and I end up pottering in the kitchen tidying up or loading the dishwasher. The moment lost. Those early parenting years are just busy.
Multiple times a day I’m struck by the fact that time is moving forward, and the kids are growing up. It’s bitter-sweet.
Clem is a-l-m-o-s-t a toddler and he’s (most probably) our last baby. Each time he grows out of a piece of clothing there’s no point in holding on to it for our next baby. Because there won’t be one. The lanolin that’s still sitting on my dressing table from the early days of breastfeeding probably won’t get used again. The toys that we pick up off the floor every day won’t be around forever.
The knowledge that I’ll be able to shoot off to a yoga class, read a book in the afternoon, or go out to dinner with Jeff in the not-too-distant future is exciting. If I’m feeling sad about the prospect of those little-kid years disappearing, then that’s a good reminder to sit down on the floor and just be with the kids or give them a hug.
When Leo was a baby, and I was climbing up out of the hole that postnatal depression had carved into my life, I vividly remember making a pact with myself to remember that there were lots of good times too. That I enjoyed this moment. That I drank him in. That I loved him more than I thought possible.
I knew I wanted another child and I didn’t want to wish away his babyhood because of my own issues.
That pact to recognise all the joyful moments was always an incredible comfort to me. I still think about it today as a reminder that I may as well be in each moment (whatever that entailed), rather than wishing it away. With a young baby the moments are underlined with sleep deprivation, boredom and having to choose between going to the toilet or waking the baby you’re holding. With an older child, the moments are underlined with different worries and discomforts: time pressure, money or career concerns… there’s always something.
Looking back at photos of the last six years I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. I see the fun we’ve had without seeing whatever little worry was on my mind at the time or whatever cold we were getting over… Photos are useful to help us enjoy the moment, but the act of taking them also removes us a little bit. It’s a double bind.
In 2013 I made an installation of 1,000 collaged photos – each one of them hoping to capture a moment in time. Seeing the beauty in little everyday domestic moments is pretty much what all of the art I’ve ever produced boils down to. I’m never going to figure it out or solve it or perfect it, but it’s my life’s work.
My dear friend Tabitha put me onto Stephanie Snyder’s classes on Yogaglo a few years back.
Although I’ve never met Stephanie, or even been in the same room as her, she is my yoga teacher. It’s amazing how much wisdom she can impart while also giving your body, mind and heart a good workout.
The key to our freedom is through service … To serve love and serve each other.
I am filled with gratitude to be able to take a class with her whenever I get the chance. There is always washing to hang out or put away, and a meal that needs to be cooked, but any time I can get on my mat and do some yoga gives back to me ten-fold. Yoga is the perfect practice for pregnancy, postnatal aches and pains, and life in general.
I am inspired by how honest she is about her own struggles and failings, and how generous she is with her love and support. She is all about giving yourself permission to feel overwhelmed in early motherhood. I hope that this same spirit is echoed in our book.
Avalon Darnesh is a sharmanic birthkeeper and mother, who is on a mission to support women so they can awaken their full potential.
Have you ever read a simple idea and been so struck by it that it stays with you forever? That’s how I feel about a lot of things that Avalon Darnesh says.
I am so grateful for her work, and it’s inspired me as we have been working on our picture book for new parents You’re Doing Great, Baby.
The two biggest things I have learnt from her are:
Instead of putting your ‘parenting’ hat on, try just being yourself. It’s much more real and less energy.
If I’m in a funk or feeling angry, I visualise what my parenting hat looks like (e.g. stiff red velvet with a small brim), and visualise me putting on a totally silly beautiful hat instead (e.g. a floppy, felted purple hat with felted flowers on it).
I am naturally drawn to women’s wisdom. Most of what I read is non-fiction written by women, and I have too many heroines to name. I have written about women who’s work has in some way inspired our book, including: Cheryl Strayed, Pinky McKay, Gretchen Rubin and Stephanie Snyder.
The quote in the picture above is from Brené Brown – a Texan researcher and academic in the field of social work, who writes about vulnerability, love, shame and wholeheartedness. I discovered her through her TED talks and have read all her books. I am a major fan of her work.
I was re-reading the chapter on ‘Wholehearted Parenting’ in Brené’s book Daring Greatly, and I basically wanted to transcribe it all into this post because it is all so spot-on. In fact all of her books have nuggets of wisdom that are useful for parents. All of her ideas are based on interviews with hundreds (if not thousands) of people about their lives, their struggles and what is important to them. She distills what she has learnt into her wonderful books. I highly recommend seeking them out.
Below is a quote from Daring Greatly that I hope is echoed in our book. If I keep this in mind during those harder days, I find I’m kinder to both myself and my kids.
It’s been a really big deal for me to ‘come out’ as having suffered from mental illness after the birth of my children (yes, I had issues both times). I am writing about my own experience because I found it really helpful to read about other people’s stories when I was recovering, and because a big part of who I am is that I survived two bouts of postnatal depression (later diagnosed as mild postnatal psychosis).
I am also sharing my story because the challenges we’ve been through explain why we are passionate about this project. We have seen first-hand how tender those first few months are and would like to tell parents who are giving themselves a hard time that they are doing great.
You’re Doing Great, Baby is not just for people with postnatal depression. It’s for anyone who has found the learning curve of being a new parent challenging. For people who are tired and have good days and bad days – which is most parents I think.
People who suffer from mental illness often suffer two-fold: once in experiencing the issues and all the ramifications this has on your life, job and relationships, and then again in the shame of keeping it secret. I am not ashamed anymore. Or at least I’m getting there with not being ashamed. It’s a work in progress.
My darkest times were in the first ten weeks after having my first son, Leo. I became convinced I was a total failure as a mother and that Jeff and Leo would be better off without me. I felt unsafe in my own skin. So anxious I couldn’t sleep, watch television or carry out a conversation. So depressed that I couldn’t taste food or see colours. I was paranoid about my caregivers and felt like I was going crazy. Getting up each morning seemed impossible but somehow I did, and I put on a brave face for Leo – crying only while he slept. The thing that kept me going was my love for Leo and Jeff. I couldn’t figure out a way of not being around anymore that wouldn’t scar Leo for life. After ten weeks of suffering in silence – ashamed of what I was feeling at a time that was meant to be the happiest of my life – I told my Mum what I was going through and she made sure I got the help I needed.
If you’re curious about what helped me recover, it was first and foremost a mixture of medication, therapy and support from Jeff, my parents and understanding friends. I was helped along by exercise, diet and sleep (once my own depression-related insomnia was gone, getting up to a hungry baby was much easier).
I know there are a lot of lists out there of what to do if a friend of family member has postnatal depression (PND) but I wanted to write my own list to capture the things that helped me. I’ve also had input from other women I know who have suffered from perinatal anxiety and depression.
PND and related mental illnesses vary in symptoms and severity from person to person. If you are concerned for the safety of a mother or her child/children then seek professional help immediately. There are resources at the bottom of this post.
Understand that PND is a mental illness. It’s no-one’s fault and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of.
Respect her privacy if she doesn’t want to talk about her illness, symptoms or treatment. Let her know you are there to listen if she does want to talk, but encourage her to get professional counselling/therapy as well.
If she does want to talk about her experience, do your best to listen without judgement.
Understand that she won’t be her usual self at this time. With help and time she will get better.
Tell her you love her and that she is going to get better.
When she is starting to feel a bit better, or on days when she doesn’t feel so bad, sharing a laugh together can be wonderfully healing for everyone. Sometimes laughter comes at the most unexpected times and babies/little kids are excellent to have a laugh with.
It’s important that you look after yourself. Supporters need support too.
It’s probably not helpful for her to hear a big list of the things she can do to to feel better. Depression and anxiety make it hard to make decisions and chances are she is aware of all the things she could be doing to feel better but is having trouble doing them. For example, rather than tell her she needs to eat better, try cooking her some nourishing food (fish, protein, fresh vegetables, soups, stews) and dropping it off at her house with no expectation of a chat unless she would like one.
There probably isn’t much you can say that will help them, but there is stuff you can do. Be guided by them. If she would like a chat then ask them how often she’d like you to call them and check in. If she would like to go for a regular walk, do that. If she would like you to come and play with the baby while she has a nap then do that. If she would like some adult company during the day then that’s a great way of showing support.
If she doesn’t want to see people please understand this isn’t a rejection of you – she just can’t deal with company at the moment. I really went to ground both times that I had the depression/psychosis and didn’t want to see anyone except immediate family. I really appreciated friends who let me know they loved me and understood that I would see them when I was ready.
Be respectful of her choice to either take, or not take, medication. It’s her call.
If she wants to seek the help of a psychologist or therapist (again, it’s her choice), do whatever you can to help make it possible e.g. offer to babysit while she goes.
Be ready to share in her joy when she is feeling better. Acknowledge her strength and courage.
Cut her some slack with getting *stuff* done. When I was at my worst I wasn’t up to eating, let alone cooking and cleaning.
If she does manage to achieve something in her day but can’t see it, remind her that she’s doing great.
Let her have good days and bad days. It is such a rollercoaster for everyone involved, but it’s going to be easier if you just leave space for her to feel how she is feeling.
If she needs time away from the baby then help make this happen. If she needs to not be away from the baby then be supportive of that too. She’s going to be the best judge of what she needs.
Random acts of kindness can really help. Whether it’s an unexpected meal, cake or box of fruit and veg dropped off at the door, or a pretty card sent in the mail, or whatever, random acts of kindness remind your friend you’re thinking of her.
Consider making routine contact. I had a friend call me every Monday during her lunch break at work. She knew my baby would be asleep and it was a good time to chat. If I felt like it, I answered the phone, if I didn’t she left a message. It could be an email, text, whatever, but regular, gentle contact will let her know you really are there.
Check with her partner how they’re doing and whether there’s any way you can help them to help your friend.
Sometimes she may need an advocate e.g. someone to accompany her to a medical appointment.
If it’s your partner who has suffered PND and you’re thinking about having another child, be ready to have open conversations about what you would do if it happened again. The book What Am I Thinking (referenced below) is a helpful discussion starter for this.
Pretty much every time I listen to Cheryl’s Dear Sugar Radio podcast, which she does with Steve Almond, I am struck hard by the truth of something she says. She manages to articulate things that my body/heart knows but my mind didn’t. I am so inspired by her writing and her honest, compassionate advice.
In an episode entitled ‘The Wounded Child Within’, the Sugars address a letter writer grappling with the question: “Are we ever able to fully let go of our past?”
In answering the question Cheryl touches on her own past (which included the all-encompassing love of her mother, an absent and abusive father, and the death of her mother when Cheryl was in her early twenties). After her mothers’ death, Cheryl became self-destructive as a way of coping with her grief. (She chronicles this period of her life in her memoir Wild.) In reflecting on how it is that she managed to survive that period of her life she said:
I had been loved too well to ruin my life.
This idea feels familiar to me, and yet I had never thought of it like that before. I want to put it in bold with rainbows behind it, because I think it is true and amazing.
My parents loved/love me in a way that makes me want a good life for myself and my own family. Their love is present in me like a cell that has divided again and again and is the blue print for my love for myself and my loved ones.
Their parenting wasn’t perfect (just as I am not a perfect parent). Can we just agree there’s no such thing as a perfect parent?
They did their best and there is something about their love which keeps me on a loving path with myself. It’s my safety net. I have had tough times in my life. I have made bad decisions. But ultimately I know how to love myself because of how they loved me.
But what if we weren’t loved by our parents in a way that nourishes us? My Mum had a troubled relationship with her own parents, and she felt saved by the love of her maternal grandmother. Her Gran’s love is present in her love for me.
Surely giving our children this love safety net is one of the greatest things we can do for them.
I find it very comforting to visualise an imperfect but beautiful safety net made of the love of all of my ancestors, present inside of me and my children.
When I was a new mum I read A LOT of blogs and articles about things that I was going through and wanting to learn more about, and I found it really helpful and normalising to read unvarnished tales of motherhood. I hope that in turn it is helpful for people to read about our story.
The main challenges I faced when I first became a mother were:
Mental health issues. I have had postnatal depression (PND), which was later diagnosed as mild postnatal psychosis, after both of my children.